Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remember Gorbachev? He Weighs in on Georgia

Today the New York Times has an op-ed piece on the crisis in South Ossetia, from none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, last head of state of the USSR.

"Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction."

A controversial statement, to be sure, yet Gorbachev is still scheduled to receive the 2008 Liberty Medal next month. Said the president of the National Constitution Center: "Awarding the Liberty Medal should not be construed as an endorsement by the center of President Gorbachev's views on the Russia-Georgia conflict."

The former Soviet leader continues:

"It is still not quite clear whether the West was aware of Mr. Saakashvili’s plans to invade South Ossetia, and this is a serious matter. What is clear is that Western assistance in training Georgian troops and shipping large supplies of arms had been pushing the region toward war rather than peace.

"If this military misadventure was a surprise for the Georgian leader’s foreign patrons, so much the worse. It looks like a classic wag-the-dog story.

"Mr. Saakashvili had been lavished with praise for being a staunch American ally and a real democrat — and for helping out in Iraq. Now America’s friend has wrought disorder, and all of us — the Europeans and, most important, the region’s innocent civilians — must pick up the pieces.

"Those who rush to judgment on what’s happening in the Caucasus, or those who seek influence there, should first have at least some idea of this region’s complexities. The Ossetians live both in Georgia and in Russia. The region is a patchwork of ethnic groups living in close proximity. Therefore, all talk of “this is our land,” “we are liberating our land,” is meaningless. We must think about the people who live on the land.

"The problems of the Caucasus region cannot be solved by force. That has been tried more than once in the past two decades, and it has always boomeranged.

"What is needed is a legally binding agreement not to use force. Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly refused to sign such an agreement, for reasons that have now become abundantly clear.

"The West would be wise to help achieve such an agreement now. If, instead, it chooses to blame Russia and re-arm Georgia, as American officials are suggesting, a new crisis will be inevitable. In that case, expect the worst."

Read Gorbachev's full essay here.

And this morning we have news of a deal to build a U-S missile defense base on Polish soil, which of course is angering Russia. It's hard to see the timing as anything other than deliberate.

Among the voices denouncing Moscow's occupation is a Georgian who once had a prominent seat in the Kremlin. In the 1980s, Eduard Shevardnadze served as the foreign minister for the Soviet Union. His comments aired on NPR's Morning Edition today.

"For 200 years, we were a Russian colony," he said. "When one gets accustomed to controlling another country, it can be difficult to see that country become independent. Eventually, some people reappear who want to re-create the old order."

Several years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Shevardnadze became president of an independent Georgia. But in 2003, he was overthrown by opposition protests led by Georgia's current president, Mikhail Saakashvili.

Shevardnadze said Saakashvili was unwise to try to reclaim the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia by force earlier this month.

But the 80-year-old former Soviet diplomat also had some advice for the current residents of the Kremlin, who have made no secret of their desire to see Saakashvili overthrown.

The more Russia squeezes Saakashvili, Shevardnadze said, the more his authority will grow. That, he added, is the nature of Georgians.

Here's the full story on NPR.)

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman points fingers all over the place:

"If the conflict in Georgia were an Olympic event, the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. The silver medal for bone-headed recklessness would go to Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and the bronze medal for rank short-sightedness would go to the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams."

Read the column here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

(The Other) Georgia on Our Minds

Not knowing anyone from Georgia or of Georgian descent, I was surprised to learn that this country of 4.4 milliion in the Caucusus has a devout fan base in the US.

Ilan Greenberg: "(I)t is hard to overstate the level of passion felt by Americans in thrall with Georgia. Love for Georgia is uncompromising and consuming. To be American and reside in Georgia is to be locked in an endless meta-conversation about being American and residing in Georgia: how Georgian culture enriches, how Georgian politics fascinate, how Georgian cuisine nourishes."

I can only imagine what these Georgia boosters felt when they saw pictures like this.

In spite of the media-heavy Olympics, images of Russian tanks in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia have made big news since forces on both sides engaged on the 7th of August. There have also been clashes in another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Russia also launched attacks on other parts of Georgia. (Russia Invades Georgia While the West Watches. How Did It Come to This?)

Barely a day after the conflict began, President Bush sat a few seats away from Vladimir Putin at the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. But there was no outward sign of tension between the two leaders. Leaning over, Bush and the Russian prime minister engaged in the sort of chummy socializing we've seen between them since their first meeting in the summer of 2001. Back then, Bush said he had looked Vladimir Putin in the eye, gotten ``a sense of his soul'' and found the Russian leader to be ``very straightforward and trustworthy.'' That fall, Putin headed to Crawford, Texas, where the two world leaders again gave all appearances of being the best of buddies.

"The more I get to know President Putin, the more I get to see his heart and soul ...the more I know we can work together in a positive way." - Bush, 2001

But how his expression changed after a few days of continued fighting in South Ossetia.

"Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century." - Bush, 2008

Bush is well known for standing by his bosom buddies no matter what their transgressions (Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, for example.) Yet he was scolding his pal publicly. Is this another sign of America's abiding affection for the former Soviet republic that shares a name with the Peach State? (Why the same name?)

Here's more of Ilan Greenberg's piece in Slate.

"Georgia is something like the Italy of the former Soviet Union, where mothers are considered saints and histrionic displays of emotion are roundly approved, where traffic police refuse to write tickets to pregnant women and grown men worship fresh produce. Television viewers getting their first taste of Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili (Misha to everyone in Georgia), this week are not wrong to detect a surprising emotionalism, volatility, and American-style openness from a leader of a country sandwiched between Turkey and Russia. It is not a stretch to say [President Mikhail] Saakashvili's qualities are emblematic of the nation as a whole.

"I got to know Georgia—and Saakashvili—when I profiled him for the New York Times Magazine. For almost two months I shadowed Misha. In Slovakia for a regional summit, walking next to Saakashvili along Bratislava's cordoned streets, the Georgian head of state hooked his arm on my elbow and offered to trade gossip about his senior staff. In Tbilisi, Saakashvili gave me carte blanche access, not once ordering me out of his office. In a region where governments routinely conflate tribe with nation, Saakashvili pointedly switched languages to inclusively address ethnic minorities. One evening I answered my cell phone to hear the cackling voice of the then 37-year-old president, who called to tease that his evening was more interesting than mine. I had been crank-called by the president. Stockholm Syndrome was inevitable.

"Georgia's charm doesn't end with Saakashvili. Few sights are as beguiling as barrel-chested Georgian men greeting each other on the street with the traditional cheek kisses. Georgian toasting is a triumph of rhetorical theatrics. Then there is Georgian hospitality. The mother of a friend I had visited shined my shoes while nobody was looking. Before arriving in Tbilisi, I called a Georgian friend to ask if I could stay in her three-room apartment "for maybe 10 days." I stayed three months.

"My friend's boyfriend was an important presidential adviser with a late-night pizza addiction. Receiving delivery was an ordeal: The delivery man, schooled in the pre-Rose Revolution tradition of refusing payment from high government officials, would knock on the door, drop the pies, and try to make a run for it. The adviser, dedicated to ending a culture of corruption, usually was able to head him off, money clutched in his fist.

"So there are many reasons to like Georgia. But for the Americans trafficking in Georgia-thrall, enthusiasm for the country of 4.8 million can be extreme. In Tbilisi, the picturesque Georgian capital that is now a precarious 40 miles from the Russian occupation zone, I met American expats—veterans of any number of other-country postings—who quit their jobs rather than accept a new country. Of course, at the government level, assiduous courting of Americans is all part of the plan. Saakashvili has been reaching out to American politicians, especially Republican ones, since he took office. When I spent time with the president, he was obsessive about influencing American opinion-makers in the press, and his chief of staff complained to me he was spending more time dictating responses to articles in American newspapers than governing Georgia.

"For Westerners, Georgian cultural idiosyncrasies can be intoxicating. But for Russians, Georgia is also innerving. The two peoples are badly handcuffed. Russian women falling for Georgian men is a stereotype in both countries, and ethnic Georgians populate the upper reaches of Russian pop culture as celebrated singers and actors. Long before the Russian army rolled into Gori, Russian tourists streamed into the country to enjoy its warm Black Sea coast and to hike its soaring green mountains.

The signature traits of Georgian identity—a romantic, somewhat lugubrious sense of national fate; male machismo; the Orthodox Church; even good toast-making—are claimed by Russians. The two countries rarely resist tormenting each other, and if this week has underscored the lack of equality between the two in hard power, there is an equanimity in national psyche. Both peoples find the cultural aspirations of the other to be intolerable.

American fans of Georgia, a good number of them anyway, have located a far-away dreamscape, a colorful Caucasian people kissing each other on the cheeks and speaking a strange, unique language in a fairy-tale land, where poor men will sell the shirts off their backs to buy a woman dinner. Ironically, a lot of Russians look south and see something similar. Too much love is never a good thing."

Here are more articles analyzing the situation in Georgia:

New York Times: U.S. Watched as a Squabble Turned Into a Showdown

Slate: After The Counterrevolution: Georgia is yet another country where Washington declared "mission accomplished" too soon.